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Fun on the Kettle River

Yesterday I got together with my friends Stephen, Stanley, and Mark to head up and run the (ridiculously low) Kettle River near Sandstone, MN. Stephen, a freelance outdoors writer, was putting together a story for the Star Tribune and needed to find some people with access to all the riverboarding gear. Luckily, Mark and I had to purchase the gear a couple of years ago for Primal Quest Utah, and ever since, both of us have been trying to find excuses to use it. So we all met up at Robinson Park just east of Sandstone, where I left my car and shuttled up to Head of the Rapids in Banning State Park, about four miles upstream.

Below the fold - more on the trip downstream, and some video I took later in the day after we switched up and gave Stanley and Stephen a chance to try out the boards!

Under normal water conditions, especially in the spring, the Kettle River is one of the best whitewater rivers in Minnesota. Since we're not blessed with steep vertical relief like the western states, Minnesota whitewater is characterized by moderate drops, with obstructions and constrictions producing the major part of the experience. Near the Kettle, there's a great deal of exposed sandstone (how surprising is that!?), and the river has carved a gorge through it ever since the retreat of the last glaciers 9000 years ago. Just below the put-in is the first major rapid, Blueberry Slide, a class IV in spring flood but now only a measly class I. Still, we suited up - Stephen and Stanley in the two whitewater kayaks, and Mark and I fully geared up in wetsuit, dry top, helmet, PFD, padded pants and elbows/forearms, and tethered swim fins, ready to jump on the Ripboards. We planned to do the full four miles down to Robinson Park, and then come back to get some photos for Stephen's story. I planned to get some video at the same time.

We jumped into the pool upstream of the rapids, where Stanley got a quick lesson in whitewater kayaking from Stephen (he had never been). Stephen also impressed us with not one, or two, or three, but four Eskimo rolls, two on each side. Then we headed down into the rapid - and that was anticlimactic!

I started out conservatively, not heading for the biggest waves, but soon realized that left me in shallow, very shallow water. In a couple places, I could easily stop and kneel on the rocks with six inches of water flowing past me. Thanks to the pads, it wasn't at all uncomfortable to drag my feet and legs over the exposed sandstone ledges - in fact, it felt like soft, mossy rocks instead. Nevertheless, our progress through the rapid seemed like it was in slow motion - see the video below for confirmation!

So after the first one, I resolved to find the deepest, fastest water possible. We went nicely through several more rapids, and it was fun actually being able to maneuver decently thanks to the slow pace. I spent the time practicing how to read the river from low on the board, trying to find chutes instead of ledges, water that was deep and fast instead of shallow and fast, and eventually squeezing in between rocks just for the fun of it. Of course, my maneuverability was helped by the fact I could often push off the bottom. Eventually we hit some flatwater where Mark and I had to kick downstream. It was a little frustrating for the kayakers, since riverboards are slow in flat water. But Stephen was up with Mark and Stanley and I stayed back and chatted to pass the time.

After two and half miles, we got into some more rapids and presently arrived at Hell's Gate, the premier section of the Kettle. Here the river is constricted between two sandstone cliffs, one of which is carved and hollowed out into a near cave and arch by centuries of floods. However, the flow was just too low to make it impressive - although it was probably the steepest drop on the river, there was barely any recirculation, and what there was, only on the right and left. In fact, there was a big ledge in the middle of the river with about three inches of water flowing over it, and after half floating, half crawling below the drop, I kicked back into the eddy and hoisted myself onto the ledge to watch the rest of the guys goof off.

Finally we left the fast water and ended up in a near stagnant pool. About halfway through, I realized a stupid mistake - even though we were supposed to shuttle back with my car, my keys were safely stowed away in Stephen's van back at the put-in. We had a quick strategy meeting and arranged to pull out at a nearby creek with access to a trail. Stephen then ran upstream into the state park to get his van, I jogged downstream to Robinson park along the trail, and Mark and Stanley tethered the riverboards behind their kayaks and paddled downstream as well. We didn't need to wait long for Stephen to arrive with the van, and then headed back to the put-in to take photos for the story.

And here's the (unedited) video I took while we were doing that:

Altogether a fun day, although I wish the water was higher - a strange sentiment, coming from me! The weather was gorgeous and we all were just enjoying the outdoors and each other's company. I was glad to get a chance to see some of the highlights of one of Minnesota's best whitewater rivers.